The Lightbulb Alone is Useless

Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit (makers of Quicken and QuickBooks software), felt that the problem to solve wasn’t making good accounting software, but something else entirely: “The greatest competitor … was not in the industry. It was the pencil. The pencil is a tough and resilient substitute. Yet the entire industry had overlooked it.” … Even if [Cook's] competition had more talented problem solvers, engineers, or designers, his creative framing of the problem gave him an advantage.

Scott Berkun, The Myths of Innovation, pg. 130

We assume that those who win innovation wars are either faster or smarter than the competition. We assume that the winners either work smarter, harder and longer, or are born brilliant. (Talent is overrated, though.) It’s actually those who frame the question correctly that usually win.

Hard work is one part of the equation, and so is smarts—the old “smart and gets things done” adage—but the greatest factor leading to successful innovation is focusing on the right question. Those who look at the problem differently often win.

It’s asking the right question that’s difficult. The best questions take imagination. The right question doesn’t just hit you—Berkun also debunks this myth in The Myths of Innovationit takes the hard work of asking the wrong questions first. We usually have to think of all the wrong ways to do something, and thus eliminate possibilities, before we attempt to innovate.

Edison wasn’t first. He just asked and pursued the right question:

While Edison is heralded for the lightbulb, he was late to the party: dozens of other inventors were trying well before he began. His success came from defining the challenge differently. He thought of the lightbulb as a system, asking questions like “How do you get power to homes to power the lightbulb? And where does that power come from?” A lightbulb alone was useless, and Edison knew why.

Scott Berkun, The Myths of Innovation, pg. 131

Maybe you’re in the position of being behind your competition. Have you considered asking a different question than them?

The iPhone wasn’t a new idea; smart phones already existed. The iPhone was the every person’s phone. Steve Jobs and his team likely asked, “What does it take to create a phone that everyone will want? What network needs to be in place? What problems need to be solved?” Those questions likely led to the partnership with AT&T, the elegant design, and the syncing (which is the real magic). Jobs and his team, like Edison, asked a different question than their competition. They probably saw the greatest challenger as something they already created: the laptop, not other cell phones. Maybe they asked, “How do you convince someone to stop carrying their laptop?” Or, “How do you convince the world’s best programmers and companies to write new applications specifically for your platform?” Seems simple now, but when they asked the question, it was probably much more difficult. It took imagination, which is the act of envisioning something that doesn’t exist. For them, it meant envisioning a different kind of country. Right, wrong, or in between, the iPhone created that.

What question are you asking? What questions should you be asking? Any ideas for how to imagine the future “as it should be,” rather than “how it is”? What do you do to stimulate your imagination?


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